Friday, May 27, 2016

Nonfiction: All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

I was extremely fortunate to be able to attend a panel that included Rebecca Traister, the author of All the Single Lades: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, at the 4th Annual San Antonio Book Festival. I even got to briefly speak with her, while she was signing my copy of her book, about one of the many points she made on the panel and expands upon in her book: the idea that a woman's life does not start until she gets married and how just untrue it is.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that does just as its title suggests. Traister looks at the growing number of women in America who are either delaying marriage, or not getting married at all. The average age women are choosing to get married has been rising steadily, and while there are many things critics and politicians (mostly conservative) are ready to blame for this trend (because to them it is a problem that someone needs to be held accountable for), what becomes clear from the very beginning of the book is that it is not a straight forward issues with a clear source and a clear solution. Many things have contributed to women's decisions to get married later in life. Some women have decided that marriage is not for them; others believe that marriage is for them but have not found the right person; still others believe that marriage is for them, just not right now, even with the right person already in sight; and then there are those women who are divorced or widowed, single once again no matter what age they first got married. Whatever the reason, there are more single women - and men for that matter - in American than ever before, although some countries like Japan and Germany are still way ahead of us. Traister reaches back into history and looks at many single women who made history, often fighting for the rights of women today's singles are able to enjoy. Traister also interviewed a variety of women in the US of various ages, race, religions, life stages, and reasons for not being married. A few even decided to have children without having a partner, something else that has become a growing trend. As single women continue to become more comfortable in their own skin in the US, critics become more anxious as "the way it has always been" is steadily changing.

My Verdict: No matter what your stance is on the issue, this book is a thinker. From the beginning, Traister introduces so many facts and stats that the amount of information is daunting, almost overwhelming. But what kept me reading was just how fascinating it all was. And for me, what makes the book truly remarkable is that Traister does not do what many critics of this new trend continue to do well into the new millennium: she does not ignore the historical and current marrying trends of minorities and the economically disadvantaged. While many politicians bemoan the decision of today's woman to marry and have kids later in life, what they really object to is the idea of white socially well-off women putting off having a family. Traister points out that the data concerning African-American women, as well as Hispanics and Asians, has always been slightly different from Caucasians, but is rarely taken into consideration. Even without agreeing to every point Traister makes, I found this book incredibly interesting and somewhat validating of my own single status. 

Favorite Moment: I mostly enjoyed the personal stories from various women Traister interviewed. For some reason my favorite out of all of them was the story of Ada Li, a woman originally from China who moved to New York in 2001. She has now been with her husband for ten years and they have a son together. But the story I was really intrigued by was that of her parents, who recently came from China to live with her. Initially, her father decided he missed China and wanted to go back, but her mother told him he would have to go back without her because she liked New York and was staying. While he did go back without her, he ultimately decided he did not like it as much without his wife, so now he is back in New York.     

Favorite Quote: "When white flappers danced to black jazz beats, they were culture-shifting rebels; when, in he mid-sixties, white women busted out of their domestic sarcophagi and marched back into workforces in which poor and black women had never stopped toiling, when Betty Friedan echoed Sadie Alexander by suggesting that work would be beneficial for both women and their families, that was when the revolution of Second Wave feminism was upon us. It has long been the replicative behaviors or perspectives of white women - and not the original shifts pioneered by poor women and women of color - that make people sit up and take notice and that sometimes become discernible as liberation."

Recommended Reading: Even though it is of a completely different vein, I recommend Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. I pick it because it is another book that takes a fascinating look at something that is easily ignored because of the kind of society we live in.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

I came across Petina Gappah's The Book of Memory while on a search for some contemporary books by African-American writers.The premise interested me almost immediately as it is always an adventure when a book is narrated by an unreliable narrator, especially one whose memory of what happened may be what saves their life.

The Situation: Memory is a young African albino woman currently serving a prison sentence in Zimbabwe for the murder of a white man. Memory was actually given the death penalty, but because of upcoming elections, and the fact that there currently is not an executioner available who could carry out the act of hanging a prisoner, Memory continues to live in Chikurubi Prison with other female inmates. Because a journalist has become interested in her story, and her lawyer also believes it will help, Memory is writing down not only what really happened to the man she has been accused of killing, but also her entire life story and how she would end up in such a situation in the first place.

The Problem: Memory being accused of a murder she assures the reader she did not commit is only the most recent development in what has not been an easy life. Born with white skin to a black family in Zimbabwe, Memory stood out wherever she went, and as a child was made fun of and teased by her classmates. Her home life did not offer much reprieve as her mother could barely stand to look at her, or touch her, while often being overcome by fits of anger and rage that seemed to come out of nowhere and were often directed at her children. And then there were the tragedies that claimed the lives of Memory's older brother, and later her younger sister. It would be shortly after the second death that Memory would be handed over to Lloyd - the white man she would later be accused of killing - while he gives her mother a wad a cash in return. It is this memory that will not allow her to return to her parent's house, even when she is old enough to do so on her own.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in modern-day Zimbabwe, but covers the recent history of the country, including its fight for independence and the present political climate. The prison Memory is sentenced to is a real place, but Gappah states in the Acknowledgments that she was never able to visit the real thing, so the one in the book is of her own imagination. Because of Memory's unusual skin color, the book not only deals with racism and prejudice against the other, but also long held beliefs by many in Zimbabwe regarding witchcraft, curses, and angry spirits. Many, including her mother, believe that the family is being punished, and that is why Memory looks the way she does, as well as the reason she is often ill. And the deaths of the older brother and youngest daughter do not help persuade anyone to believe otherwise. Even after she comes to live with Lloyd, Memory is plagued by nightmares as she cannot forget that her parents sold her without so much as a backwards glance. And of course, with the title being The Book of Memory, there is much discussion about how we remember things and how those memories can shape our lives, even if they are wrong.

My Verdict: This book is very slow at the beginning, but about a third of the way through it starts to pick up steam, especially as little hints are dropped and some secrets are revealed, eventually pointing to larger revelations that tell the whole story. At first it can feel like all of the hinting is just that: hints that tease the reader but do not actually lead anywhere. But eventually they do and the wait is pretty worth it. The payout for sticking with the book is substantial, and while not every question gets an answer, I still felt satisfied with the ending, and even a little hopeful.

Favorite Moment: When Memory is allowed to tutor one of the guard's daughters, allowing her some free time outside of her usual area, away from the other prisoners, and a chance to enjoy common luxuries she had not enjoyed in years, such as a hot shower and television.

Favorite Character: This is difficult only because so many of the characters are hard to like. There are the prisoners, and then there are the guards; Memory's parents are not painted in the best light as they handed her over to a strange man in exchange for money; and Memory has very few close friends, mostly because of her condition. Lloyd seems like the obvious choice, but there is so much about him that the reader just does not know. And even with what Memory eventually realizes, there still is not that much insight into who Lloyd really is.

Recommended Reading: While The Book of Memory is about a black girl with white skin, I Am Radar by Reif Larsen is about a white boy born with black as midnight skin. It is a different kind of book, and also much longer, but Larsen also plays with the idea of skin color and the results are pretty interesting.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Nonfiction: A Thousand Naked Strangers by Kevin Hazzard

The full title of today's selection by Kevin Hazzard is A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back. Reading the first part of the title without the second part creates a lot of curiosity. Reading the whole title together adds clarity, but the curiosity does not go away necessarily: it is still there, it just shifts slightly.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book about the life of a paramedic in a big city. Kevin Hazzard worked as a paramedic in Atlanta for ten years. From 2004 to 2013, Hazzard ran the calls that no one ever wants to make. A Thousand Naked Strangers begins with the story of the first person Hazzard saw die in front of him while on the job, and then continues to tell the story from the absolute beginning: his first day in class at EMT school. From here, the book chronicles his journey from EMT school, to his first job, to his second job; through the myriad of partners he will end up having in the back of the ambulance with him; to becoming a paramedic; to working at the legendary Grady Hospital in Atlanta; and finally to his ultimate decision of giving up the job for good. Quite naturally, since this is a book that details the author's time as an EMT, there are plenty of bloody and often gory bits as Hazzard describes some of his more gruesome calls, the kind that stay with you even after having done the job for ten years. But there is also plenty of  reflection on what causes someone to stick with being an EMT for so long, as well as becoming one on the first place, knowing what we know and what we have seen on TV. There are the odd hours; the even crazier shifts; the partner you may or may not like but have been forced to work with; dealing with the police; dealing with fire fighters; and then of course, the patients and the bystanders. Some people call 911 with a legitimate emergency, others do not. And even of the ones who do need emergency care, they may not want to accept it, and decide to fight the process the entire way. Hazzard has had to dodge knives, be ready to dodge bullets, and maneuver his way through unruly and agitated crowds. The job - and at certain points the book - is not for the faint of heart. 

My Verdict: Knowing that this book is about the life of a paramedic, it is understood that some of the stories are going to be gruesome and hard to digest. But even knowing that going in did not prepare me for some of the stories that would be presented, and that may be part of the point Hazzard is making. Because after all of his training, what he learned in school, and even after getting a few years under his belt, there were still situations he was not ready for, but had to go in and deal with anyway. It is a hard to digest book that gives the details where they are necessary, instead of shoving them down the reader's throat in an intentional effort to make you cringe and wince. People get hurt, some even die, and others are just in incredibly embarrassing situations. The "wild ride to the edge and back" may not be wild enough for some readers, but for me it was just enough.

Favorite Moment: When the city decides to run a drill involving multiple emergency services around town, but neglects to inform the ER staff of the closest hospital, the one that will receive the fake patients, that it is only a drill.

Recommended Reading: I actually recommend Dancing With the Devil in the City of God by Juliana Barbassa. It is another nonfiction book, but this time the author has decided to pick up and move to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And some of what she finds there is almost as shocking and explicit as some of what Hazzard saw as a paramedic.  

Friday, May 6, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places took home the award for Best Young Adult Fiction in the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards.The book beat out Rainbow Rowell, a well-loved favorite among Goodreads users, so naturally I found the need to check it out.

The Situation: Theodore Finch is awake again and hopes to stay that way. But he has once again found himself at the top of the school bell tower, looking out at the scene below. At most schools, a lone teenager at the top of the bell tower would be cause for alarm, but at Finch's school, everyone sees this as Finch being Finch, again. What they do not expect, is to see Violet Markey up there with him. The story will read that Violet saved the unpredictable and erratic Finch from jumping, but they both know it was the other way around. What they do not know is that this will lead to one of the most important friendships - relationships - of their lives.

The Problem: Violet more or less has everything going for her: loving and attentive parents, popular friends, a fresh and pretty face, and up until recently, one of the hottest guys in school as her boyfriend. But the one thing that would bring Violet to the top of the school bell tower is the same reason she broke up with star athlete Ryan Cross. Violet's older sister, Eleanor, was tragically killed in a car accident a little less than a year before, and Violet still suffers from survivor's guilt. Meanwhile, Finch has a family that barely pays attention to him, is the direct opposite of popular, and while he does not receive any complaints because of his looks, people are not exactly clamoring to be around him. If anything, they do whatever necessary to pretend he is not there. But Finch has very little concern about how others feel about him, and is more concerned about staying awake. He does not want the darkness swallowing him again, which would most likely mean losing another few weeks of his life that he will never get back. And he believes he has found in Violet Markey the best reason for staying awake. He saved her life, but can she save his?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in present day Indiana. Throughout the novel, Violet and Finch are working together on a project for US Geography in which they must visit places around the area. For Finch, it is not enough to look into the obvious tourist attractions, so he makes it a mission to look for sites most people would not think of, and he insists on visiting more than is required for the assignment. So the reader is taken on a tour of various offbeat places around Indiana, as well as a few obvious ones. As the book is written from the point of view of both Finch and Violet, switching between the two perspectives throughout the story - a device that has been used quite a bit in novels I have read recently (All the Birds in the Sky, Salt to the Sea, The Turner House, The Nightingale) - the reader will get the story from Violet's sorrow and grief-filled lense for one chapter, and then the next chapter will be from the often erratic and manic voice of Finch. Neither voice is difficult to follow for the reader, but it is interesting how the two can miscommunicate, sometimes intentionally, and what people will say despite what they are actually thinking. At first, both characters remain closed off and guarded, but as they slowly get to know each other and trust each other, they are able to share more of themselves, more than they have with anyone else in a long time. The book explores grief, mental illness, the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide, bullying, adventures in and around your own hometown, and there is even a healthy dose of literature quotes that are tossed around among the characters.

My Verdict: In the beginning, it is hard to like either Finch or Violet. Finch can come off as somewhat arrogant, especially with the way he talks to teachers and other students. It is true that he is often bullied and treated unfairly, but his attitude does not do much to endear him to the reader. And while Violet may be in mourning, how she handles it, especially at school, can make her seem manipulative and like she is taking advantage of the situation. But as the book continues, it is clear that these are two people who are hurting and are trying their best, which can sometimes look like the worst. Thankfully, neither Violet nor Finch remains unlikeable for long, and somehow the pair is able to pull the best out of each other, leading to some sort of progress. Had I read this book before the voting began for the Goodreads Choice Awards, I most certainly would have voted for it. It is smart, funny, emotional, affecting, and just a really good book for anyone of any age.

Favorite Moment: There is a page with nothing but a drawing of a flower on it, and yet that picture says more than the whole rest of the book.

Favorite Character: I finally decided that Finch is my favorite, though Violet comes to be a close second.

Recommended Reading: I would recommend Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes, another book that deals will teens, depression, grief, and suicide.